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Democrats may be caught in a 2020 time warp on race

Posted November 12, 2019 6:00 a.m. EST

— A diversity paradox looms over the Democrats' hopes of recapturing the White House in 2020.

The field of Democratic presidential candidates includes the most racial minorities ever, and more minorities will likely vote next year in the party's primaries than ever before. Yet four white contenders consistently lead in state and national polls, partly because of the outsized influence of the two virtually all-white states that lead off the election calendar, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Those four white contenders -- former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg -- have also raised more money than any other candidates in the field.

The same tensions are shaping the party's calculations about next November. With the country's minority population steadily growing, analysts in both parties expect that nonwhites will constitute their largest share of voters ever in the 2020 general election. Yet the overwhelming focus of most Democratic strategists is finding a way to reconnect three fallen bricks to the Democrats' "blue wall" across the Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Each is a preponderantly white state that has seen much slower growth in its minority population than the nation overall, much less such potential Sun Belt battleground states as North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Texas and above all, Arizona.

It's all enough to make Democratic strategists who focus on communities of color feel as if they are caught in a time warp. Democrats "are trying to run the campaigns of 1992 or 1994 all over again," worries Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has extensively studied African American voters.

Minority voters are crucial to Democrats

By any measure, minority voters remain indispensable to the strategies of all the Democratic presidential contenders, in the primaries and the general election. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic calendar runs through a concentration of states with large populations of nonwhite voters, starting with Nevada and South Carolina in later February and proceeding through Texas, California, Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, among others, during the first weeks of March. Looking toward the general election, even party strategists who prioritize recapturing the three Rust Belt states that tipped to Trump consider increasing African American turnout a pivotal component of any successful strategy.

The importance of minority voters to Democratic fortunes is also reflected in the widespread assumption that the party will pick a vice presidential nominee of color next year if a white contender wins the presidential nomination.

But for both the primary and the general election, these considerations are only part of the story. For the general election, a significant block of nonwhite Democratic strategists worry that the eventual nominee will heavily favor the Rust Belt over potential Sun Belt battlegrounds for investments in time and money.

They also fear that the focus on the Rust Belt by party leaders is encouraging primary voters to define electability more as the ability to recapture older blue-collar Midwestern white voters who backed Trump than to energize younger nonwhite Sun Belt voters who traditionally haven't voted at all.

"There are probably like three legitimate different paths (to winning) that rely on different groups of voters," says Matt Barreto, co-founder of the Democratic polling firm Latino Decisions. "If you have a strategy based on flipping Arizona or Georgia, that is an energizing Latinos and African Americans story."

Minority candidates could be winnowed out early

And while all Democratic campaigns expect nonwhite voters, especially African Americans, to play a central role in picking the nominee, they could be choosing only among white candidates. That will happen if poor performances in preponderantly white Iowa and New Hampshire effectively winnow out the race's leading candidates of color: African American Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, Latino former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Asian American entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Castro pinpointed that possibility over the weekend, when he argued that the party should break up the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly, which has launched the Democratic nomination race in every contest since 1972.

"I actually believe that we do need to change the order of the states because I don't believe that we are the same country we were in 1972," Castro said on MSNBC Sunday night. While he praised voters in both states for carefully considering the candidates, he said that demographically they are "not reflective of the United States as a whole, certainly not reflective of the Democratic Party."

There's no question Iowa and New Hampshire do not reflect the Democratic Party's modern diversity. In 2016, minorities cast just 9% of the votes in the Iowa caucuses and 7% in the New Hampshire primary, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of news organizations that include CNN. Nationally, in sharp contrast, minorities cast 38% of the votes last time across all of the Democratic primaries and caucuses with exit polls, according to a cumulative analysis by CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta. That number could easily cross 40% in 2020, given the minority population's continued growth and the increased political engagement those voters displayed in the 2018 election.

South Carolina's rising role

Conscious of the widening demographic gulf, Democrats moved starting in 2008 to mitigate the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire by scheduling Nevada and South Carolina immediately behind them on the primary calendar. In 2008 and 2016, the two contested nomination fights since then, those shifts did change the dynamics. While the candidates have not competed in Nevada as heavily as the first two states, South Carolina -- where a majority of votes are cast by African Americans -- has emerged as a major battleground whose winners (Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016) ultimately won the nomination.

Even this year, some Democratic strategists argue that the South Carolina result is more likely to predict the eventual nominee than the winner in Iowa or New Hampshire if those states favor a candidate, such as Warren or Buttigieg, who has struggled to attract African American voters.

But if the party's changing demography means that Iowa and New Hampshire may not pick the winner this year, their capacity to winnow out losers appears undiminished. And that's the point of concern for Castro and some minority activists. They fear that because voters in succeeding states take their cues on which candidates are still viable from the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, the diverse contenders in the field may be effectively marginalized by poor showings there before minority voters have to chance to weigh in.

Few Democratic strategists dispute that the diverse candidates could suffer that fate. But many say that possibility derives more from the flaws in those candidates' campaigns than in the primary system itself.

"I reject the structural problem, because out of the same structure came Barack Obama, who beat a front-runner (Hillary Clinton) who was a lot more formidable than any front-runner in modern political history," says Belcher. "Lots of people run for office; sometimes you catch fire, sometimes you don't. I have no qualms about calling out structural racism and sexism when I see it. And this is not it."

Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist whose experience with the Iowa caucuses dates to the 1980s, likewise says it is harder to argue that Iowa and New Hampshire are unfairly undermining Booker, Harris and Castro because they have not shown consistent appeal to minority voters in the later states.

The latest Charleston Post and Courier-Change Research Poll, for instance, put Harris fourth in South Carolina and showed her drawing just 17% of African Americans there, far behind Biden's 38%. A Monmouth University poll in the state around the same time found her drawing only single-digit support among African Americans.

The latest Nevada Independent survey showed Castro drawing just 1% overall in Nevada and only 2% among Hispanics, far behind Biden's 34%.

"The thing that (the case against Iowa and New Hampshire) misses is that none of the diverse candidates are performing well even in their own community," says Trippi. "Right now, it's not a fair read again because I think Kamala and Booker have had more than a fair chance in South Carolina and other places to move. And she was moving at one point and she has fallen off the charts."

Minority activists are frustrated

Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group focused on organizing women of color, says the candidates of color in the field still have time to rejuvenate their campaigns. And even if they don't, she notes, the rising influence of minority voters is evident in the increased emphasis that the leading white candidates have placed on issues of racial justice, concerns that Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg alike were not known for stressing until this year.

"You have a set of candidates ... who have had to evolve as individual leaders and in the policies they are presenting in order to motivate and attract a coalition that is heavily driven by people of color," she notes.

But Allison shares the frustration of other minority activists that much of the party appears to be defining electability primarily as the ability to win back the closely contested Rust Belt states by recapturing blue-collar white voters.

That focus has undeniably boosted Biden's candidacy, especially among older voters of all races, despite his personal struggles as a candidate.

One year before Election Day, the general consensus among Democratic strategists is that the shortest and surest path to recapturing the White House is by flipping the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which Trump won by a combined 80,000 votes last time.

Ruy Teixeira, a longtime Democratic election analyst and co-author of a recent Center for American Progress study on the changing demography of the 2020 electorate, spoke for many when he recently told me that "it does seem like the right path" to stress those three states, while investing in Arizona as a backup if Democrats can't recapture Wisconsin.

Virtually no one in the Democratic Party argues against prioritizing Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020. But Allison, like other skeptics, says the emphasis on those states still raises two interrelated questions. One is whether the focus on them will diminish attention to opportunities in more diverse Sun Belt states. The second is whether focusing on blue-collar whites, rather than turning out more young people and minorities and wooing more college-educated whites, is the best way to win even those states.

"You can't just invest in those three Midwest states," she says. "But if you are going to win those three Midwest states you have to focus on people of color in general and women of color in particular."

Reflecting that perspective, Allison's group has launched an effort to organize women of color in seven potential battleground states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin along with North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia and Texas. She passionately argues that Democrats should not just lay siege to the first group of states while downplaying the second. Given the gains that Democrats notched in the 2018 elections in Arizona, Georgia and Texas, she says, "this is not the time to hedge our bets."

Opportunity, but at a cost

It's far from guaranteed, though, that the decision-makers in the Democratic Party will agree. Looking toward the general election, Arizona appears likely to become a top-tier Democratic target -- if only, as Teixeira puts it, as "insurance" against the risk that Wisconsin in particular proves too difficult to dislodge from Trump. And any Democrat is certain to seriously contest Florida, whose elections are routinely decided by achingly narrow margins, and possibly North Carolina (though likely to a lesser extent than previously, given Trump's strong showing there in 2016.)

But it's much less certain Democrats next year will seriously invest in the emerging opportunities in Georgia, much less Texas. Both still lean Republican, and Texas, in particular, would demand enormous resources.

But the opportunity in Texas for Democrats is also considerable: Barreto projects that as many as 800,000 more Texas Latinos could vote in 2020 than in 2016, given the huge pool of eligible but unregistered potential voters in that community. Combined with the Democrats' improved performance among well-educated suburban whites, such a Hispanic turnout surge, if Democrats can engineer it, would make the state highly competitive.

The problem is generating such a Latino turnout surge would require a level of organizational investment -- and eventually time from the presidential candidate -- that Democrats will be reluctant to commit to a state that still leans away from them.

Over time, Democratic priorities are likely to tilt more toward the Sun Belt. In an era when Trump has steered the Republican message and agenda so heavily toward the racial anxieties and cultural preferences of older blue-collar whites, Democrats will inexorably face a greater threat in states across the industrial Midwest with large numbers of those voters. That will increase the pressure on Democrats to generate gains in congressional and presidential elections in the rapidly growing, younger and more racially diverse states across the Sun Belt.

Teixeira expresses a widespread party consensus when he says Sun Belt states such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas "are going to be brutally fought over in the 2020s."

But in 2020, that future appears likely to remain sublimated to a Democratic strategy that still views the big Rust Belt prizes as the race's central battlefield. And unless something significantly changes before the party begins voting in February, the most diverse Democratic coalition ever will be marching onto that battlefield behind the banner of another white presidential nominee.

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